Iona overjoyed at surprise NCAA bid

The Iona men's basketball players and coaches were so nervous about Sunday's NCAA tournament selection show, they didn't even watch it together.

The team finished practice at about 5 p.m., an hour before the show began. The players went to eat together at a nearby restaurant, while the coaches went someplace else to eat. "We didn't wanna jinx ourselves and be all together, thinking that we should get in, and then have a disappointment," said Iona coach Tim Cluess.

When Iona's name appeared on the TV screen, things started happening quickly. "As soon as we all found out, we called each other and came running right back to school and all met up here," said Cluess. "And we're enjoying it right now."

Cluess was speaking on a conference call with reporters about a half-hour after the selection show ended. The Gaels (25-7, 15-3 MAAC) -- the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season champions, who were upset in the semifinals of their conference tournament -- were one of the biggest surprises in the field of 68.

Prior to this year, the MAAC conference has only received one at-large bid in its history -- Manhattan in 1995.

Iona was one of the last four teams to make the NCAA field, so the Gaels will have to play a play-in game, Tuesday at approximately 9:10 p.m. ET in Dayton, Ohio, against BYU. The winner will be the No. 14 seed in the West region, and play No. 3 seed Marquette on Thursday in Louisville, Ky.

This is Iona's first bid to the NCAA tournament since 2006.

"We were hopeful -- I knew we’d be in an on-the-bubble situation, so we weren’t sitting there thinking we were in," said Cluess. "We were probably saying, 'Well, with all these teams out there it's gonna be a tough decision for the selection committee. But we remained hopeful and we got in. We're just extremely excited -- we wouldn't say surprised, just more thrilled."

"I think a lot of my teammates were nervous, but being there last year, I kind of knew how a lot of things worked, and what to expect," said Iona junior guard Lamont "Momo" Jones, who played in the NCAA tournament with Arizona last year before transferring.

"And looking at the RPIs and the strength of schedule and what we did this year, I was pretty confident that we were gonna make it. I just had to keep telling my team, we're gonna make it, you just gotta have faith."

Iona did have a good final RPI rating, 42. The Gaels went 0-2 against teams in the Top 50 in the RPI, but were 5-1 against teams ranked from 51 to 100. And they went 6-2 during a very difficult December road stretch -- Iona played eight games that month, all away from home.

"I knew that our out-of-conference strength of schedule, our out-of-conference RPI, our overall RPI, the fact that we played so many road games -- we had a lot of things going in our favor that would give us a chance," said Cluess. "I also knew that there were a ton of tremendous teams that you were looking at."

Iona's opponent, BYU (25-8, 12-4 WCC), finished in third place in its first year in the West Coast Conference, behind St. Mary's and Gonzaga.

"I don't know a lot about them right now -- I know they're a very good basketball team," said Cluess. "We're gonna get as much information as we can on them; that's what we're doing right now. My assistant coaches are hard at work on that, and we're looking forward to the challenge."

The coaches and players are on the same page, or in the same place, on that one.

"We're very thankful that we got in, and we're very excited, and we're very hyped to play," said senior point guard Scott Machado. "All my teammates are like, 'We wanna practice right now!' Everybody's just excited and ready to go. We definitely wanna make a run, but it’s gonna be one game at a time."